At long last, Donald Trump will have his fervently desired summit with Vladimir Putin. Having hit a post-Cold War low, the U.S.-Russia relationship could use a push toward a better state. A summit could do that, but only if Trump is disciplined in how he prepares for and deals with Putin.
Unfortunately, that appears to be a very big “if.” The president has given little reason to expect he has such discipline. A mere photo-op summit works to Putin’s advantage. And he will prepare and lay traps into which Trump could all too easily stumble.
Meeting in Helsinki
Washington and Moscow announced last Thursday that Presidents Trump and Putin will meet in Helsinki on July 16. That followed a June 27 meeting between National Security Advisor John Bolton and Putin at the Kremlin, after which Bolton said, “the fact of the summit itself is a deliverable.” That sets an awfully low bar. Bolton never would have said such a thing a few months ago.
If the White House wants a summit that advances U.S. interests, the president will have to prepare. That means gaining command of key U.S.-Russian issues, such as arms control, Ukraine, and Syria. He has smart people who can help him do that.
Preparation also means a positive NATO summit on July 11 and 12 that sends a message of robust allied unity, especially in responding to the challenges posed by Russia. That would strengthen Trump’s hand as he sits down with Putin.
Finally, a successful summit in Helsinki requires that Trump confront Putin candidly on issues where Russia is misbehaving. That is important if he wants to earn Putin’s respect. It is also important for how the summit will be seen back home.
A worthwhile agenda…
What should the summit agenda look like? There will be some general discussion, but it will be important that the leaders tackle specific issues. The two presidents should first agree on steps to ensure that the U.S.-Russia relationship does not deteriorate any further.
One area to prioritize is nuclear arms control. The 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) put bounds on the U.S.-Russian nuclear competition. Unfortunately, the nuclear arms control regime today faces serious problems.
Mutual charges of violations have placed the INF Treaty in jeopardy, and New START expires in less than three years. Trump should press Putin to agree to task experts to resolve INF compliance issues. He could tell Putin that U.S. officials will give serious attention to Russian questions about the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense site in Romania, which Moscow claims violates the INF Treaty, if Russian officials address U.S. concerns about their 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile, which Washington maintains is a banned intermediate-range missile.
As for New START, Putin has hinted that Russia would like to extend New START (by its terms, it can be extended for up to five years, until 2026). Trump should agree to such an extension, which would preserve the predictability and stability benefits that New START provides to both countries.
A second area to seek progress is on military-to-military interactions. U.S. and Russian military forces now operate more frequently in close proximity, raising the possibility of an accident or miscalculation. Trump and Putin should have their senior military leaders sit down to agree on ways to reduce the prospect of a mistake that neither side should want. Senior military leaders might also usefully discuss doctrinal questions, in order to better understand the other side’s doctrine and explain elements that cause concern.
Trump also has to raise difficult issues. Ukraine tops that list. He should make clear that the United States will continue to support Kyiv, that Russia needs to make peace in eastern Ukraine, and that Western sanctions will remain in place until it does. Trump should press Putin to get serious about ending the Donbas conflict as well as put to rest hopes in the Kremlin that he might fold on this issue.
Trump also must raise Russia’s interference in U.S. politics. He should put Putin on notice that a continuation of this behavior will result in retaliation by Washington. Unless the Kremlin understands that its cyber and social media misconduct has costs, it will not cease.
A summit that ensures that the nuclear arms competition remains bounded and puts down clear markers on how Washington would respond to continued Russian misbehavior could set the stage for a process, likely a slow one, that would move the U.S.-Russia relationship toward a better place. That would be a useful summit.
… But reason for apprehension
There nevertheless remain good reasons for apprehension about the Helsinki summit.
First, is there any reason to expect Trump will prepare? Or will he just wing it?
Putin will come to the summit very well prepared to push his agenda with a gullible American counterpart. He could, for example, recite a biased Russian narrative regarding Crimea—colonized by Russians, unfairly transferred to Ukraine in 1954, populated by a Russian ethnic majority—that dupes Trump into reversing four years of the West’s policy of not recognizing Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
Second, will the NATO summit provide the right scene-setter for Helsinki? A repeat of the June G-7 summit fiasco would weaken Trump’s position and tempt Putin to strive to widen the emerging differences between the United States and its European allies.
Third, by a number of accounts, in contrast to his tweets, Trump shies away from confrontation in face-to-face meetings. If he ducks or soft-pedals difficult issues such as Ukraine or election interference, Putin will take Trump for a sucker and play him accordingly.
One can and should hope for a successful summit in Helsinki, one that begins the process of improving the U.S.-Russia relationship. Such a summit is possible. But based on what we have seen of Trump’s foreign policy performance, one should have modest expectations … and a certain amount of apprehension.